May, 27th 2015

Liz’s Top Five Cities

– Liz Mair

As I do the promised travel blogging, I anticipate doing a lot of "top fives." This is partly laziness on my part, partly my thinking that this will help keep my writing semi-accessible and relevant to people. Anyway, here is the first-- my top five cities.

The top three on this list are obvious for me. The last two are less so, and in fairness, Damascus and Istanbul were also in pretty close contention. But here are some thoughts on the top five, in any event. 

1. Rome 

It’s probably easier to say what I don’t like about Rome than to list what I do. In truth, there is only one thing about Rome I don’t like, and that is that it’s big. Really big. A lot bigger than you would think, if you haven’t been there. That makes walking the city tougher than you might expect, which is unfortunate because there is a lot best seen on foot. That really just means you should allocate more time than you think necessary if visiting the Eternal City. 

So what’s to love in Rome? In no particular order…

The Vatican: OK, this works better if you are a) Catholic b) an art lover or c) both. In my case, as a Catholic, having been raised by artists, this is pretty much a no-brainer. If you are religious, see if you can manage to participate in Mass here. A friend and I were lucky enough to attend Mass on Easter Sunday, led by Pope John Paul II. It would be fair to say that was a highlight of my life to-date, but merely visiting St. Peter’s is a high point in itself. If you travel to Rome, be sure to do it, and do the Vatican Museums, also. It’s well worth the effort. 

Christian Rome, more broadly: Rome is home to a ton of churches, boasting amazing art and architecture. Some of my favorites are in Trastevere. Rome also hosts its catacombs, which I will confess I have never yet visited—but again, would be worth checking out if you have the time.

Roman Rome: No pun intended. I’m married to a guy who studied (Ancient) Roman history extensively, so walking around the Colosseum, the Forum, the Circus Maximus, the Largo Argentina, Hadrian’s Palace, Ostia, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla, and the immediate areas is a lot of fun. With the bevy of ruins still in good condition, it’s easy to imagine Rome during the Republican and Imperial periods. It’s easy to immerse yourself in these periods of history. It’s easy to spend whole days wandering around these sites, feeling thrown back in time—even though you’re surrounded by throngs of tourists, many of whom would, under normal circumstances, be deeply irritating. Prioritize walking from the Circus Maximus, to the Colosseum, through the Fora, and take in the Domus Aurea and Marcellus’ Theater if you can. It’s a great, if tiring, walk, highly educational and atmospheric, with lots of opportunities for high-grade photography. If you want an additional experience targeted at the Republican/Imperial Roman history enthusiast, there’s also the gladiator’s school. I’ve never done it, but I’ve always been tempted. If you love animals, check out the cat sanctuary at the old temple at the Torre Argentina.

Food: Rome has great food. Street food, sit-down food, you name it. Some of my favorite things include pizza cut with scissors and served up on the fly near the Torre Argentina, gelato (everywhere, but some particularly good gelaterie seem to be around the Camp dei Fiori and the Piazza Navona; my favorite flavors tend to be the nut ones—pistaschio, especially—but also spumoni and cassata), small, traditional trattorie in the old Jewish Quarter, and pepe e cacio pasta pretty much everywhere. The advantage to Rome being so big, and there being so much best seen by walking is you can actually justify eating all of this without packing on weight (OK, if you don’t drink a ton of booze, you can). The disadvantage is if you’ve allocated too little time, you’re going to miss out on some phenomenal (and cheap) food, which would be a tragedy. 

Football: If you love calcio, and I do, Rome is a good place to try to catch a game, if you’re able. Lazio and Roma have traditionally both been teams worth watching (though admittedly, so far as Serie A is concerned, I support Juventus. Sorry, Romans). 

Shopping: Let me stipulate upfront that I hate shopping more than almost any activity. I would rather do an hour at the dentist with a drill than an hour shopping. But with that being said, if you’re going to shop anywhere, Rome is a pretty good place to do it, especially if you want to buy Furla handbags in between visits to churches and gelaterie. It can be good for buying food, too, whether at street markets or indeed at places like Eataly—which is a bit like combining Whole Foods (but Italian), a tapas bar (but Italian) and Ikea (but, um, Italian). Some people hate it. I personally love it.

2. Seville 

I have a soft spot for Seville. I did an exchange there for about five weeks when I was fifteen, and it was amazing. Years later, Seville still amazes as much, for all the same reasons it did originally.

History: Seville has a rich history, combining Christian, Moorish, Jewish, and Roman strands. In the city center, much of this comingles in easy proximity. The cathedral is one of the world’s biggest (the third, allegedly, and also the biggest gothic cathedral in the world). It holds Christopher Columbus’ tomb and incorporates parts of the former mosque—most notably, in the form of the orange tree garden and the Giralda, which is fun to climb and imagine Moors on horses climbing using the ramps (no stairs!) built in from the bottom. The Alcazar and its gardens are a stunning example of mudejar architecture and planning. The Barrio Santa Cruz—the old Jewish Quarter that surrounds these sites— is beautiful, and worth walking around with its hidden squares and narrow passages, though it is also extremely sad to think of the people who once lived here and were expelled because they adhered to the wrong faith. It’s worth a look at the university, which is the site of the former tobacco factory where Carmen is set, as well as the Jardines de Murillo (big gardens). It’s also worth walking down to the river, to see where the boats to the new world set off, and where the Torre de Oro is positioned. The General Archives of the Indies near the cathedral contain Columbus’ records. To sum up, you cannot escape history in Seville, which if you’re a history buff, is a great thing.

Easy proximity to other places of interest: Another big advantage of Seville is that it is so close to other Spanish locales that offer much of the same historical appeal, namely Cordoba, Granada and Italica. Cordoba boasts its church/mosque with its many red and white striped arches, and fewer richly decorated, jeweled arches, as well as a bridge originally constructed by the Romans. Granada is, of course, home to the Alhambra—a must-see—as well as the chapel housing the tombs of Isabel and Ferdinand, and numerous teterias (tea-houses), a great place to relax after hiking around the Alhambra (though walking to them from there is a trek). Italica is a Roman site just outside of Seville, with amazing mosaics.

Food: Spanish food is phenomenal. And while I no longer drink, I used to, and it’s fair to say that Jerez is also phenomenal. Some favorite foods you’ll find in Seville include paella (especially seafood paella), jamon Serrano (kind of like pancetta, but better), tortilla (potato omelette), ensalada rusa (potato salad with peas and carrots, and in Seville, in my experience, commonly also tuna), croquetas (especially ham), olives and manchego cheese. As a general rule, calamari and anything with prawns is also worth a sample. Things with oranges in them are also worth trying. A fun experience is going to the San Marco pizzeria, which is housed in the old Moorish baths—this is a good way to combine history and food.

Events: Seville hosts an amazing Holy Week, complete with processions featuring nazarenos (the guys that dumb Americans commonly mistake for Spaniards wearing KKK outfits), tons of flowers, statues of the Virgin Mary, and so on. Seville also hosts its spring Feria, full of women in flamenco dresses, Spaniards on horses, family and neighborhood casetas loaded with people drinking manzanilla and dancing Sevillanas, as well as quite a few fairground rides (at least when I was there!). This is one of the biggest parties you could ever attend, and one of the coolest, too.

Culture: Separate to the above, there is plenty of flamenco on offer in bars and restaurants, bullfighting (if you like that kind of thing, though to be clear, I do not), and so on. Also plenty of good art; some of the best I ever saw was in a convent I managed to gain entry to thanks to a personal relationship of my host family. 

3. Edinburgh

For many years, Edinburgh felt like my second home, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I rate it highly. However, it really is a cool city—again, full of culture and history.

History: The old part of the city is routinely packed with tourists, to be fair. But it is still full of interesting sites. The obvious ones are Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, which bracket the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s old high street. Along the way are the Scottish Parliament, John Knox’s House, St. Giles Cathedral, and the headquarters of the Church of Scotland, all worth checking out. Along here, and on adjoining streets, many scenes from the fall of Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation played out (Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots contains useful details as to precise locations, if this is of interest to you).

Also worth checking out are Princes Street Gardens (check out the flower clock, designed by one of my relatives, as it happens) and the Walter Scott Memorial, in front of which there will invariably be a piper worth listening to for a few minutes. Check out some of the Georgian New Town, also.

Culture: The Edinburgh Festival is world-renowned for a reason; it’s a genuinely great theater/music/opera and dance event. (During the Festival, Edinburgh also hosts the Military Tattoo at the Castle; if you’re interested in bagpipes, Scottish highland dancing, and similar, this is a must-attend event). However, Edinburgh is home to great theater, opera, and so on anyway.

Easy proximity to other places of interest: Rosslyn Chapel—well worth visiting, irrespective of whether you’re into the Da Vinci Code or not—is nearby. Depending on your definition of “proximity,” so are Stirling (host to another great castle, and the Wallace Monument), the Borders (full of beautiful, ruined abbeys), St. Andrews (where yours truly attended University, home to a beautiful ruined castle and cathedral, and some very cool, very old University buildings, as well as the very famous golf course), and the very beginnings of the Scottish Highlands. 

Food: OK, I’m kind of joking. But deep-fried Mars bars aside, Scotland—and Edinburgh, especially in my opinion—is host to some pretty good food. For something traditional, and awesome, try the Waverly for high afternoon tea (note: The Balmoral is also good, but it’s only a little better than the Waverly and far more expensive). Try Mother India’s Café for something not traditionally Scottish, but great. And do try haggis. It sounds awful, but it’s actually delicious.

Golf: I hate golf. But if you like it, there’s nowhere better to play.

4. Aleppo 

It may qualify as leading readers on to list Aleppo here, because so much of what made it such a cool place to visit has evidently been destroyed in the course of the Syrian War. This is incredibly depressing; Aleppo was host to amazing sites of historical and cultural import, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to visit it when I did.

History: Aleppo hosts an amazing, huge Citadel, which apparently is still standing—though that may not remain the case forever. It is incredibly old, with the site itself having been used for thousands of years before even Caesar walked the Earth (though what you see today is really from a little less than a thousand years ago, and is Ayubbid). Aleppo used to also hold a 15th/16th century souk with amazing shops including many trading in luxury goods, and a wonderful olive oil soap factory (seriously, it made some of the best soap ever). The souk, sadly, is no more. Aleppo was also a locale of significance for Agatha Christie, with the Baron Hotel, where she wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express, situated here (Lawrence of Arabia also stayed there, and King Faisal declared Syria’s independence here). Aleppo is, or at least was, home to numerous medieval hammams (baths).

Food: Aleppan cuisine is genuinely some of the best food on the planet, combining diverse flavors including pomegranate, cardamom, walnut, eggplant, pistaschio, yogurt, cherries, pine nuts, lamb, and burghal. Basically, Aleppans seem to have taken the best of every culture they encountered (which were a lot, given their locale on the Silk Road) and mixed it all together. The result is phenomenal.

5. Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a city far different to the others on this list. While it boasts traditional aspects, it is also undoubtedly very modern and recognized as such. Here’s what I think makes it worth visiting.

Architecture: Hong Kong harbor is just an amazing sight to behold. It is especially intriguing that so many of the buildings were designed to conform to Feng Shui principles. Whether you believe in Feng Shui or think it’s epic BS, this makes for a spectacle that is very visually interesting, and worth seeing and exploring in person.

Sites: Hong Kong is full of fascinating and beautiful temples, monasteries and the like, including the 10,000 Buddhas monastery and the Precious Lotus monastery.

Awesome horse racing: Happy Valley, Hong Kong’s race track, is probably the most fun and accessible race track I’ve ever visited, and that includes Churchill Downs and Keeneland in Kentucky. Right smack in the middle of the city, it’s ideal to hit up after dinner.

Food: Needless to say, if you like Chinese food, Hong Kong has what you want. Lots of it. It also has great food from elsewhere in the former British Empire (I’m thinking about a great Nepalese restaurant we visited there), and a surprisingly large number of great pastry shops selling things like red bean buns and green tea cake. 

Shopping: As noted above, I hate shopping. That said, there are some times when the deals to be had on quality goods are simply too good to avoid enduring the pain that is dropping cash and hauling bags of stuff around. One example: Hong Kong is the home of the super-fast, super-awesome, super-affordable tailor. Sam’s Tailor on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is who our family has used (some of us have lived in Hong Kong), and they’re great. Another example: Night markets. Full of cheap and cheerful goods, they’re worth a look, even if you don’t buy. Another: high-end women’s fashion produced by Asian designers. Another: Furniture and interior décor items (see Yue Hwa, for example).



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